2007 // USA // Tina Mascara and Guido Santi // August 3, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - A feature documentary about a romantic relationship seems to present particular challenges. In attempting to convey such a profoundly personal subject, a filmmaker risks emotional voyeurism, not to mention its ugly cousin, audience resentment. Who are these people, and what makes their love so damn special that they deserve a movie? Directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi appreciate that a viewer must first be lured before they will weep. Their new feature, Chris & Don: A Love Story introduces a couple as star-crossed as they come: The Berlin Stories author Christopher Isherwood and portrait painter Don Bachardy, thirty years Isherwood's junior. What could be more compelling than a May-December gay couple that defied the world and discovered an enduring love? However, despite its veneer of against-all-odds romance, Chris & Don quietly discovers an emotional space that is deeply affecting precisely due to its universal nature.
Given that Isherwood passed away in 1986, Mascara and Santi necessarily slant their approach towards the 74-year-old Bachardy, who narrates much of the film with his frank, mirthful recollections. However, Chris & Don doesn't lack for other sources. The film alights on the remembrances of friends and on cultural context provided by literary and art scholars. Perhaps most valuably, Isherwood gets his own say via his meticulous and astonishingly poetic diaries, where he chronicled the ups and down of his life with Bachardy. Read by Michael York—whose voice is unfortunately nothing like the author's—these writings reveal the moments that Isherwoood treasured and the emotional currents that only he discerned. With this mosaic approach, Mascara and Santi assemble a rich and moving personal portrait of two people entwined by sublime bonds.
The documentary method on display in Chris & Don is fairly conventional, but the film benefits from its ocassionally bolder choices. On the one hand, there is a flat and somewhat disengaged quality to the blurry recreations, which are far too reminiscent of History Channel hackery. In contrast, the film's most successful gesture is its scribbled animated sequences, which visualize Isherwood and Bachardy as the animal alter egos they assumed in their private letters. While there is an undeniable charm to these fantasy scenes—Isherwood assumes the persona of an old horse and Bachardy a fluffy cat—they also have a deeper resonance. The device is familiar (Who doesn't have silly pet names for their beloved?), but it also speaks to the cunning behind the couple's apparent whimsy. In externalizing their desires and anxieties, Isherwood and Bachardy were able to pick their way through emotional minefields, such as Bachardy's resentment that he was denied a youth of roving sexual experience.
Chris & Don suffers somewhat from its gentle yet persistent need to highlight the positive and hint at the negative. Mascara and Santi clearly wish to render the couple's romance as inspiring and touching, but in the interest of drama they can't resist adding concessions to the rockier patches in the relationship. The treatment is a touch too vague, however, and Bachardy's anecdotes are too elliptical. It's not that the film wants it both ways—gay men as exemplars of both committed lovers and quarreling bitches—so much as the tension in the story's middle feels affected and, well, cheap. Fortunately this criticism doesn't apply to the final chapter of Chris & Don, where the directors pluck out a genuinely devastating vision of the mysterious places where love, art, and death intersect. Bachardy shows the hundreds of drawings and paintings he completed of Isherwood in the author's final months as cancer slowly defeated him. When Bachardy tearfully muses that his final, furious burst of creativity would have made his lover proud, it is the most humane moment in any documentary this year.